World Bank on human rights: “active support” but no politics

23 November 2006

versión en español

In October the Swedish minister of foreign affairs launched a Nordic trust fund for justice and human rights, and the World Bank Institute devoted its latest edition of Development Outreach, to human rights and development. This includes contributions from high profile experts on the issue and from the Bank’s new legal counsel, Ana Palacio. Meanwhile, the World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) continues to pioneer its niche private sector role in supporting human rights.

The five year Nordic trust fund will finance: training for World Bank staff; pilot projects linked to poverty reduction strategy papers; and development indicators for “efficient” human rights and justice programmes. Ulrika Sundberg from the Swedish ministry of foreign affairs states that there is a lack of practical evidence to show that human rights considerations “constitute an added value to the economic development process” and that World Bank economists need convincing of this fact. She envisages a debate on conditionality “for decisions on the granting of loans or aid to be subject to tangible results in the area of human rights”. She also asserts that “the World Bank should not take over the UN’s role when it comes to human rights”.

no mention of the Bank's own role in contributing to violations

Ana Palacio emphasises that “the World Bank has limitations on strictly political activities”, based on its articles of agreement. She asserts that “the overarching goal of human rights frameworks is the empowerment of the weakest most marginalised, including the poor”. She puts much emphasis on the World Bank’s “facilitative role”, to support country members to realise their human rights obligations. Importantly she states that “human rights would not be the basis for an increase in Bank conditionalities, nor should they be seen as an agenda that could present an obstacle for disbursement or increase the cost of doing business”. She also highlights the integration of human rights with the Bank’s promotion of good governance and anti-corruption work. She makes no mention of the Bank’s own role in contributing to violations in recipient countries and ways in which it should address this, or access to justice for those affected.

Reactions to Palacio’s statement have been mixed. “Although her focus is largely limited to economic, social and cultural rights, she has at least emphasised legal empowerment of the poor as an important consideration”, said Anne Perrault from the Center for International Environmental Law. “We should watch to see if the Bank’ focus, in practice, remains entirely on what states are obligated to do and not on what the World Bank must do”. Others fear that the Bank will use its newly adopted human rights speak as a means to legitimise its good governance and anti-corruption agenda, and that efforts to “support its members to fulfil their obligations” will result in yet more loan conditionality (see Update 52).

The IFC claims to be “actively supporting” the operationalisation of the UN Norms on Business and Human Rights into private sector lending requirements and asserts that its “policy and performance standards are supportive of human rights”. Responding to a report edited by Canadian NGO, The Halifax Initiative (see Update 51) on the IFC’s revision of its lending standards, the IFC says it is “trying to strengthen [its] support of human rights at the project level”, particularly in relation to its lending standards on labour, security forces, housing and indigenous peoples. Fraser Reilly-King from The Halifax Initiative said: “such an assertion is astonishing when you look at IFC-supported projects associated with clear human rights violations, such as the Glamis goldmine in Guatemala and Anvil copper-sliver mine in the Congo. If the IFC were to ensure that its standards comply with international law and that its projects do not undermine human rights directly or indirectly as called for by the Extractive Industries Review, that would be a different matter.” The IFC will launch its human rights impact assessment in December (see Update 52)

Alfredo Sfeir Younis, the World Bank’s former ‘special advisor on the social dimensions of globalisation’ has also contributed to the debate. Writing in the online magazine Policy Innovations he outlines that human rights must be a consideration for economic development organisations. Sfeir Younis’ vision takes the legal concept of human rights into the realm of economic markets, stating that human rights are “highly correlated with economic development and are often precursors for it”. He believes that “economic development institutions are best positioned to make human rights a reality” and sees a fundamental role for the private sector in their fulfilment.